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Torah Sparks

Parashat Vayehi
December 29, 2012 – 16 Tevet 5773

Annual (Gen. 47:28‐50:26): Etz Hayim, p. 293; Hertz p. 180
Triennial (Gen. 49:27‐50:26): Etz Hayim, p. 305; Hertz p. 187
Haftarah: 1 Kings 2:1‐12 (Etz Hayim, p. 313; Hertz p. 191)

Hazak, hazak, v'nithazek!

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
(Temple Emanuel of North Jersey, Franklin Lakes NJ)

Parashat Vayehi marks the conclusion of the Book of Genesis - the end of the beginning. We are told that Jacob lives in Egypt for seventeen years, forming a symmetry in his life: he enjoyed seventeen years with his beloved son Joseph before the latter's "departure." As Jacob's life draws to a close, he secures a commitment from Joseph to bury him "with my ancestors" in Canaan. Joseph brings his sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, to receive their grandfather's blessing. Joseph positions them carefully, so that the elder, Manasseh, is at Jacob's right hand; Jacob crosses his arms, placing his right hand on the younger Ephraim, and despite Joseph's objections calling him by name before addressing the firstborn. Jacob blesses Joseph: "God will be with you and will bring you back to the land of your fathers." Apparently continuing the pattern of favoritism that led to such adversity in both their lives, Jacob tells Joseph, "I give you one portion more than to your brothers."

From his deathbed, Jacob recites poetic blessings and personalized messages of remonstrance to each of his sons. Before he dies, Jacob repeats his instructions to bury him in his ancestral plot in the cave of Machpelah, which his grandfather Abraham had bought. Joseph weeps bitterly at his father's death, and instructs the Egyptian physicians to embalm his body in preparation for its return to Canaan.

Egypt observes seventy days of official mourning for Joseph's father. Joseph secures Pharaoh's permission to accompany his father's remains to their final resting place. Jacob's sons carry him to Machpelah and observe a seven-day mourning period. With their father dead, Joseph's brothers fear he will seek revenge for their offenses against him. They tell him about Jacob's instructions that he forgive them - although the reader of the Bible has no corroboration that Jacob actually made such a statement!

Joseph assures them that they need not fear: "Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good. Fear not. I will sustain you and your children." Joseph lives to see great-grandchildren. Before dying at the age of 110, Joseph secures a promise from his brothers to "carry up my bones from here" when God, in time, returns their descendants to the Promised Land.

Theme #1: "Some Patriarch"

"Then Israel said to Joseph, ‘I am about to die; but God will be with you and bring you back to the land of your fathers.'" (Genesis 48:21)

Study: Derash

"'Yisrael' Avinu wanted to leave us a very important message before departing this world: Do not become complacent in the lands of exile. Make sure you always remember that galut is unnatural, a punishment. And strive with all your might to return to the Land of your forefathers, if not alive then at least after death." (Rabbi Moshe Lichtman)

"Israel expresses his wish for Joseph's return to the land and ways of his ancestors, even though he knows that he will not live to see it and can do nothing to bring it about. He places Joseph in God's hands, assuring him of providential assistance in his eventual return to the Promised Land." (Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom)

"For Jacob being in Egypt is temporary and difficult to take. Burial ‘back home' brings him comfort, as does the knowledge of God's promise that eventually his family will return to the ancestral home." (Rabbi Michal Shekel)

"The conscience of the dying belies their life. " (Luc de Clapier)

"After all, what's a life, anyway? We're born, we live a little while, we die." (E.B. White, Charlotte's Web)

Questions for Discussion

Israel/Jacob here confronts his own mortality. Was he also confronting his troubled past… as when he exploited his vulnerable and malleable brother Esau who – exhausted and hungry – also said, "I am about to die" (25:32)?

What aspect of Israel/Jacob's message to Joseph "belies his life"? His faith in God's protective care or his hope for his son's return to the Land of Israel? To what extent did Joseph achieve these two goals? Was Israel/Jacob in fact addressing Joseph personally… or was this dual "blessing" directed at the Jewish People as a whole – which the patriarch assumed would be led by Joseph?

Must one perceive the Diaspora to be a punishment, an unnatural state for Jewish existence, in order to be a true Zionist?

"Charlotte's Web" is hardly a nihilistic treatise! It teaches about kindness, compassion, community, relationships… How did Israel/Jacob leave a permanent mark on the Jewish collective memory through the quality of his life? How does he stack up against his father and grandfather as a patriarchal role model?

How do we experience God "being with us"? How would you want to see this blessing manifested in your children and grandchildren?

Theme #2: "Waiter!"

"I wait for Your deliverance, O Lord!" (Genesis 49:18)

Study: Derash

"Here Jacob prophesies that the Philistines would put out the eyes of Samson (descended from the Tribe of Dan, in whose blessing this verse is found – JHP), and that he would say in the end (Judges 16:28): ‘O Lord God, please remember me, and give me strength just this once!" (Rashi)

"No other judge fell into the hands of the enemy as Samson did… and Samson was the last of the judges… When Jacob saw that Samson's deliverance had come to an end, he said, ‘I wait for Your deliverance, O Lord.' Not for the deliverance of a snake (i.e. Samson), but deliverance is in You and not in the judge, for Your salvation is eternal.'" (Nachmanides)

"Jacob understands that salvation requires time, process, change; in order to effectuate this salvation, the Lord also requires Jacob's help, a partnership between the Divine and the human which takes into account familial and historical events and reactions. Hence he sets out on a difficult personal journey of self realization - and invokes Divine help… Dan is the warrior tribe of Israel - and Israel's future will contain many wars, much persecution, numerous sacrifices of life and limb. But we must cooperate with G-d and contribute to our historical redemption. Judges like Samson must work on themselves to be worthy of the Divine agency. And we must never lose faith in the ultimate effectuation of the Divine promise. ‘For your salvation do I await, O Lord.'" (Rabbi Shlomo Riskin)

"The meaning of these words out of context seems clear. In every generation, we await God's saving power; each moment, we place our spirit in His hand… L'Yeshuatcha kiviti Hashem is a mirror. We look at the verse and at ourselves, and ask ‘Have I waited expectantly for salvation?' And we ask as well, ‘have I done those things that I myself can perform, for which, if we could say such a thing, God waits?'" (Rabbi Richard Fagan)

Questions for Discussion

Genesis 49:18 represents a seemingly sudden and prayerful digression from Jacob's deathbed messages, blessings, and remonstrances to his sons. What inspired this brief change of topic? Was Jacob overcome with a sense of God's nearness? God's absence? Was he inspired or in despair? Was he afraid of the end? Was he concerned that he might not finish the task at hand – individualized statements to his sons? What was the nature of the divine deliverance he awaited?

What is "deliverance" or "salvation"? From what must we (or do we long to be) delivered or saved? Has the Christian use of these terms made their application to Jewish religious life all but impossible (especially among those Jews for whom Hebrew is not their primary language)?

Rashi's interpretation of Jacob's statement as a prophecy regarding Samson is an attempt to place the verse into its Scriptural context. How else might this phrase be related to Jacob's blessing of Dan?

How do Rashi and Ramban differ in their treatment of Samson?

What is God waiting for you to do?

Historic Note

In Parashat Vayechi, read on December 29, 2012, Jacob saves some of his most vitriolic final message for his sons Shimon and Levi, in reference to their bloody attack on the people of Shechem: "Their weapons are tools of lawlessness… Cursed be their anger so fierce, and their wrath so relentless" (49:6-7). On December 29, 1890, the U.S. Seventh Cavalry massacred more than 150 largely unarmed Sioux men, women, and children at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.

Halachah L'Maaseh

"Kriat Shema al Ha-Mitah" is an expanded version of the traditional Shema, recited before going to sleep at night, even after having recited the Shema during evening services (Arvit). See Mishnah Berurah 239:1-9. The practice may be traced to Talmudic sources: see Berachot 4B-5A; 13B. The liturgy includes citation of Psalms 4:5, "So tremble, and sin no more; ponder it on your bed, and sigh," as well as a repetition of Genesis 49:18 (see above). The words of the Genesis verse are serially transposed, then repeated three times: "I wait for Your deliverance, O Lord! For Your deliverance, O Lord, I wait! O Lord, I wait for Your deliverance!" See also Aruch Ha-Shulchan 231:6.

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